THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Baghdad-based journalist Hiwa Osman says that, to most Iraqis, the showdown between radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-led coalition authorities seemed inevitable. Over the past year, al-Sadr has been trying "to attract attention through provocation." Many of these attempts failed, until he published "inflammatory" remarks in his newspaper, "Al-Hawza." The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) reacted by shutting down the newspaper, which "ignited demonstrations of [al-Sadr] supporters who were later joined by people who normally support efforts toward a smooth reacquisition of sovereignty."
The subsequent announcement by U.S. authorities that an Iraqi judge had issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr, in connection with the murder of a moderate Shi'a cleric last year, further enabled al-Sadr to portray himself as being persecuted by the occupying coalition. Thus, with his "simplistic statements," al-Sadr "managed to ride the wave of popular feeling of a marginalized people who are still suffering from the aftermath of decades of oppression and believe that every foreigner is conspiring against them."
Iraqi politicians say "they feel caught in the crossfire between CPA arrogance and an increasingly frustrated and rapidly radicalizing street. Unilateral CPA decisions, such as closing 'al-Hawza' and announcing the arrest warrant, only strengthened Mr. Sadr's position," while marginalizing the Iraqi authorities.
Osman says, "Had the Iraqi Governing Council or the Ministry of Interior closed 'al-Hawza' newspaper and issued the press statement of his arrest warrant, Mr. Sadr may well have remained the outlaw many Iraqis thought him to be, and he would have remained in political isolation."
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
An editorial today says any hopes that the U.S.-led coalition would be able to maintain stability in Iraq with relatively light troop deployments have been dashed by the upsurge in violence this week.
Coalition troops are now fighting two enemies on several fronts. The continuing battle with Baath Party loyalists and other anti-coalition elements continues even as the followers of Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr launch a new challenge to occupation forces. The paper remarks that the run-up to the scheduled 30 June transfer of sovereignty from the occupation to an interim Iraqi administration "is proving to be a period of exceptional volatility; local figures are jockeying for influence and some are none too scrupulous about the means they use."
Iraqis will be glad to see an end to the foreign occupation. And as they begin the long process toward stable self-rule, hopefully they will overcome their religious and ethnic differences "for the sake of national unity." But the paper says, "given the conflicting interests of Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd, and the weakness in training and equipment of the Iraqi police and Civil Defense Corps, the situation is likely to remain volatile. A stable transition will require powerful underpinning by foreign forces."
The paper says the June transfer of power may not be accompanied by a withdrawal of coalition forces. In fact, the opposite might be necessary, including an increase in troop numbers. The paper maintains that a "strong allied military presence remains essential to the nurturing of Iraq's embryonic democracy."
THE WASHINGTON POST
The rise in violence in recent days has prompted some discussion of delaying the scheduled 30 June transfer of power to Iraqi authorities on the grounds that stability cannot be maintained throughout the handover. But the paper's Jim Hoagland says this consideration "draws the wrong lesson" from the recent increase in fighting. "The date for a formal end to U.S. occupation should be carved in stone and honored," he says. The U.S.-led occupation "is a magnet for resistance to the foreign presence in Iraq.” And the rise “of anti-foreign uprisings -- not imminent sectarian civil war -- is the gravest threat to Iraq's future."
But the heightened military campaign "needs to be reinforced by greater political realism from the [U.S.] administration," says Hoagland. This must "become a clarifying moment for a clouded strategy that is losing support" from both domestic allies and those within Iraq.
"Sticking with June 30 will not be easy," he says. "A new interim Iraqi authority should in fact be in place by May 30 to underline the commitment to leave and to give valuable preparation time to this Iraqi political body. The transfer of sovereignty a month later will, to a great extent, then be symbolic, since U.S. troops under U.S. commanders will continue to provide security."
LOS ANGELES TIMES
An editorial says national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony today before the 9/11 commission "will not shove her unwillingly into the spotlight." She has already been on a public campaign to refute criticisms by former U.S. counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke that the current administration did not take the terrorist threat seriously before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
With her testimony today under oath, which the White House resisted “before capitulating to public indignation," Rice will have an "opportunity to more soberly make the administration's case for how it is conducting the war on terror."
Rice must give up her "nitpicking rebuttals" of Clarke's criticisms "and talk honestly about what the administration did and failed to do before 9/11 to prevent a terrorist attack. She should robustly explain why it was imperative to attack Iraq despite the now-clear cost to the larger fight against Al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries.
"Facing up to what wasn't accomplished will be as important as stating what was," the paper says. "[Being] mistaken is not a disgrace. Only by knowing what was ignored or unseen can future attacks be effectively prevented."
With her testimony today, the L.A. daily says Rice "should offer a detailed and forthright accounting."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
"Kudos to Lithuania," the paper says. "The country's parliament, or Seimas, just taught everyone else in Europe an important lesson: No one, not even the president, should stand above the law in a functioning democracy."
On 6 April, the Lithuanian parliament voted to impeach President Rolandas Paksas, charging he had accepted shady campaign contributions from a Russian businessman, Yuri Borisov; illegally granted Borisov Lithuanian citizenship; and intervened in a privatization scheme to divert funds to his associates.
The president's ouster is yet "one more reason we should all be glad the European Union will be getting fresh blood from the east in three weeks time. The parliament went by the book, the process was open and the result legitimate."
Lithuanians "should be proud of their achievement." They have "reminded us in a forceful way that the rule of law lies at the heart of democracy. The powerful are privileged only in serving their voters."
In contrast, the French president "enjoys blanket immunity" during his term, the Italian prime minister spends a lot of time dodging investigations, and past German chancellors have been accused of accepting dubious party funding.
The paper says ironically, "Maybe the EU could send French parliamentarians and prosecutors on study tours to Eastern -- make that ‘New' -- Europe" to learn some lessons in political rectitude.
Writing from Almaty, media analyst Olivia Allison says Uzbek authorities have cracked down on the press following violent skirmishes and a spate of bombings on 28-31 March. She says Tashkent has tightened control over the domestic media and sought to portray the attacks "as an isolated incident, perpetrated by an international terrorist conspiracy." She notes that the official version of events "differs markedly from many foreign media accounts, which have suggested that the government's repressive economic and political policies have pushed desperate citizens to rebel."
An analysis in Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested that the attacks were part of a domestic insurgency, adding that a virtual state of emergency was put in place in Uzbekistan following the attacks. But such reports "directly contradict state-controlled Uzbek media accounts of the violence and its aftermath."
Allison says Uzbeks "have lived in an information vacuum since the outbreak of violence" in and around Tashkent. While official censorship ended in 2002, self-censorship continues, she says. Media outlets avoided showing pictures of the attack scenes. And whenever possible, Uzbek authorities “have sought to control the way foreign news organizations report developments related to the attacks."
The crackdown comes at "an economically sensitive time" and has already caused some damage, says Allison, noting that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on 6 April canceled some $31 million in aid projects for the country. The EBRD cited Tashkent's dire human rights record, including the lack of press freedom in the country, as the reason for its decision.